The Sins of Quantification and Other Mind-Set Impediments

As people in organizations assemble to discuss their work, they often ask, “How will this affect the bottom line?” and apply this question to virtually any decision or plan of action. Behind this question, though, is a question about the numbers.

How often, in the course of a business day or in the offices of senior leaders, does the conversation stop when someone asks about the numbers? How many times does a business leader interrupt a presentation and ask, “So what do the numbers say?” As many chief executive officers (CEOs) and chief financial officers (CFOs) will tell you, the real power behind the organization is determined not by them but by the numbers. Our preoccupation with the bottom line seems excessive and unhealthy.1

Numbers are thought of as cold, hard facts. In accounting, the numbers are what they are, and we have to deal with them—or rather, we have to deal with the reality they create. What lies behind this statement may be difficult for financial professionals to get their minds around, because numbers are not real—they are an abstraction. An auditor who reviews a balance sheet is dealing not with reality but with symbols and abstractions of reality.

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